Building a Title Contender


Jan 16, 2012; Springfield, MA, USA; Chicago Simeon Wolverines forward Jabari Parker (22) holds the ball while being guarded by Findlay Pilots forward Winston Shepard (right) during the first half at Blake Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, after Duke was pummeled by Ohio State in Columbus, I wrote an article on Austin Rivers. The young freshman drove, attacked, and continued to push Duke as far as he could. While the rest of the team effectively gave up after the Buckeyes built up a twenty point lead, Rivers wouldn’t give in.

That quality was one of the biggest reasons Duke went as far as they did. Yes, they lost to Lehigh and CJ McCollum in the first round but, without Rivers, that season could have ended with Duke missing the tournament for the first time since the Gaudet year. As to what exactly went wrong with the team in 2012, that is an entirely different column for an entirely different day. For now, my focus is on that instinct and reaction Rivers showed against Ohio State.

Every great team has been built around a centerpiece, with an excellent complimentary beta dog, and role players that understand their parts in the game. Jordan had Pippen, Kukoc, Kerr, and Harper. Lebron has Wade, Bosh, Battier, and Chalmers. Bird had McHale and Parrish. Even glancing at some Duke championship teams, Laettner had Hill, Hurley, Davis and Lang. Battier had Williams, Boozer, and Dunleavy. Singler had Smith, Scheyer, Zoubek, and Thomas.

Now, the 2010 team is somewhat of an exception as they had three excellent beta dogs who knew how to takeover when the other’s shots weren’t falling. Still, Zoubek and LT played their roles exceptionally well and Andre Dawkins was huge off the bench as a shooting specialist.

When you apply this general principal to the 2013 Blue Devils, the pieces seem to fall into place exceptionally well.

Centerpiece – Jabari Parker: There is almost zero chance Parker doesn’t step into the starting lineup and command the best opposing defenders on a nightly basis. With his ability to play on the low block just as well as he plays the perimeter, Parker will open up Duke’s playbook and spacing on the court. He’s a player that you can depend on in isolation at any spot on the floor. He knows how to pass out of double teams and how to exploit those mismatches (not only his but the ones he creates for his teammates) which makes those role players so valuable.

Beta Dog – Rodney Hood: This may sound like an insult but I’m simply trying to play off the old Alpha Dog adage. Every good leader has had a second in command that was steady, sure, and almost as talented as the Alpha. Think Bobby Hurley, Jim Spanarkel, or, recently, Ryan Kelly (to Mason Plumlee). Hood may push Parker because he does just about everything Parker can do, only slightly less well. Hood’s demeanor is perfect for this role as well since all he can talk about in his interviews is doing what’s best for the team and playing wherever he’s needed, I think at one point he talks about walking the elderly across streets. Few teams have a talented, do-it-all wing that is as likely to get 7 rebounds as he is 7 assists. Duke has two and Hood understands his role is to play Dwyane Wade to Parker’s LeBron.

Grinder – Amile Jefferson and Tyler Thornton: My man crush for these two has nearly propelled me to write an ode to their skills the likes of which only Homer could rival. They are both prototypical grinders in that they are both relentless workers on the court who understand how to maximize their time. Jefferson will never be criticized for his lack of effort on the glass or lack of focus. Although not a true center, he brings what some call a “lunch pail” game to the table. I mean, if he started walking onto the court with a big sledgehammer on one shoulder and a dented, iron lunch pail slung over the other, I would just die of joy. Thornton, a man who has come to earn the status of a deity among portions of the fan base, has shown himself to be one of the savviest players in the college game. Whether it’s diving out of bounds to save a loose ball, defending Harrison Barnes on the perimeter, or hitting spot up threes; Thornton has played his role beautifully.

Now, obviously both of them have their flaws. Thornton isn’t a world beater nor is Jefferson the second coming of Elton Brand. But they don’t have to be. There is a common folly among sports fans that a team entirely composed of All-Stars would be unbeatable. Sure, it seems like a team of Jason Williams, JJ Redick, Grant Hill, Elton Brand, and Christian Laettner would, as they say, pwn. Unfortunately, those pieces don’t fit together as they’d all need to be ball dominant. Jefferson and Thornton are able to play their game without needing touches.

Floor Spacers – Andre Dawkins, Matt Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon: Shooters are valuable in not only an advanced analytics world but also to how teams with dynamic slashers space the floor. It’s so en vogue right now to jump on the effective field goal percentage train that some of the most highly sought after free agents in the NBA (and high school prospects in college recruiting) are three point specialists. The Heat and Spurs (begrudgingly due to Danny Green) made the 3-and-D guy the most have item of the summer behind only Born Sinner (I see you J. Cole).

While Sulaimon’s defense was, at times, utterly suspect last season, greater strides are expected. Speaking of great strides, the 5th year senior who can cover a basketball court in four of them, returns for one more shot at a title. Andre Dawkins has always had great athleticism but his inability to use that effectively has probably led to several sleepless nights for Duke fans. Of course, until now, Dawkins had been dealing with a completely unfair mental burden. If at worst Dawkins is a 38% shooter from behind the arc and still brings his defensive limitations, Duke will manage due to the size on the interior. The freshman Jones is largely unknown but all reports have him as a standout spot up shooter with the ability to handle on drives to his right. I expect another Andre Dawkins, hopefully without the tragic luck.

The Engine – Quinn Cook: I’ve already written on Cook and I think I’m one of his bigger advocates. Some call him enigmatic, I call him a sophomore. Regardless of the names you want to apply, there is no doubt his role on the team is to drive them. I love analogies, this you will learn. I’ve already compared Cook to Jesse Hall from the Mighty Ducks and I’ll make another cinematic comparison: Vince Howard of Friday Night Lights (the television show). Howard had flashes of brilliance that were limited by Taylor’s restraint, nay, fear of Howard’s mistakes. Cook made plenty last year but he was also one of the best sophomore point guards in Duke history.

I’m not saying, but I’m just saying:

Bobby Hurley (SO) – 11.3 ppg, 7.4 apg, 2.4 rpg, 1.3 spg, 40% 3pt, 42% fg

Quinn Cook (SO) –      11.7 ppg, 5.3 apg, 3.8 rpg, 1.4 spg, 39% 3pt, 42% fg

When Howard really started to show out was after Taylor removed the restrictor plate from his team’s engine and let him play on instincts. Just watch Cook last season and you’ll see a player who was at his best on the fly and in instinctive moments. Duke also leaned on him a lot more last season than they will this season on creating shots for others. Curry, hampered with his leg injury all year, did fine getting open but wasn’t as sharp as he used to be. Kelly and Plumlee weren’t exactly shot creators as much as they were finishers. This year, Cook has three guys on the floor that can drive, dish, and shoot by their own skill sets. This should allow Cook to be more creative and instinctive on the floor as K lets it run wide open like Earnhardt at Daytona.

The Variables – Josh Hairston, Marshall Plumlee, Alex Murphy: It is a curious role these three will play. They’ll like split roughly 30 minutes between them in some capacity. You can expect K to handle their playing time game by game. Guys like Robert Carter and Charles Mitchell will command Jiggy to step in and body up in the post. Murphy will see most of his minutes as a roaming forward meaning he will likely serve primarily as Parker’s back up. Plumlee is in the most interesting situation. This team is tailor made to have Plumlee as the starting 5. If Marshall is healthy enough for the season, his height, effort, and defensive communication would be an ideal fit alongside Parker, Hood, Sulaimon, and Cook. If he’s not, Duke goes smaller, although probably more talented, with Jefferson.

As you see, this Duke team has all of the components to climb the ladders at the end of the season. The key will be what kind of progression Cook makes (namely, he limits his floaters and tries to draw contact instead. Quinn, you’re a 90% free throw shooter, get to the stripe!) and how Parker accepts his role as the Alpha Dog.